Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"Facebook Depression": Major Threat to Teens or False Alarm?

A few weeks ago, a sometimes-visitor to this blog, Cara,  emailed me a link to a news article about this report from the American Academy of Pediatrics on teens and social media. Although it's actually a pretty balanced report, it does include one paragraph on what it calls "Facebook Depression". You can find that report here, but the paragraph in question is below:

Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression. Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents. As with offline depression, preadolescents and adolescents who suffer from Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and sometimes turn to risky Internet sites and blogs for “help” that may promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or self-destructive behaviors.
If you read this paragraph carefully, it clearly implies that spending "a great deal of time" using social media causes depression in some teens. Specifically, the "intensity of the online world" may "trigger" the problem.

Whoa. That's serious. I mean, at least three-quarters of teens use some type of social media. And we know that depression is a serious problem (I've blogged about it here and here).  So to say that use of social media can cause depression? Yipes! And remember, the people making this claim are not from Joe Blow's Emporium of Discount Docs, they are the AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS. Double yipes!

But then some folks took a closer look at the articles cited in that report that supposedly supported this conclusion. Turns out four of the six of them were third party news reports, not original research studies. And neither of the two actual peer-reviewed studies they cited used the term "Facebook depression" or established that use of social media can cause depression. Actually, the studies they cite show it's a lot more complicated than that--for example, only teens with "low quality friendships" show this tendency toward depression with increased social media use. Teens with solid, high quality friendships aren't affected.

You can read an in-depth critique of the "Facebook depression" part of that AAP report at PsychCentral. One of the major criticisms is the basic confusion between correlation and causation. Two things can be related, but that doesn't mean one causes the other. Because of the prevalence of depression in teens, it's likely that many depressed teens use social media. But isn't it possible that depressed teens intensify their use of some social media as escape from the in-person world? Or to cope with the fact that they don't have great offline friendships? In those cases, depression or a predisposition to it would actually be causing increased use of social media in some kids, not the other way around.

The other major criticism was that this report didn't bother to cite conflicting evidence. It reads like ALL researchers have come to this conclusion. But there are several studies that show that use of social media actually has some positive outcomes for teens, including increased access to social support.

Now--if you're interested in this, I do suggest you read the entire report. In my opinion, most of it is pretty well-balanced and raises some pretty good points about teens and social media.

But the take-away message here: be careful, folks. When you see a report like this blared throughout the media, don't take it at face value. If it impacts you, do a little digging. You may be surprised to find there's no scientific consensus, or someone is grossly oversimplifying a nuanced issue, or perhaps the media has just latched on to something sexy and is making more of it than is warranted. All of those seem to be in play here.

Did you hear about this "new condition"? If so, what did you make of it? Is it believable that use of social media could trigger depression in a teenager (apart from cyberbullying, that is)? How about the other way around? Could it help an isolated teen reach out?

And if any of you ever have questions regarding the interpretation of psychological reports in the media or from one of those major professional groups (especially if it relates to children or adolescents), you can always do what Cara did and shoot it my way! I'd be happy to take a look.

This week, for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog, Lydia answers the question, "Does each story you write have an overarching theme, and if so, do you think of it ahead of time or discover it after?" And just in case you missed it, here's Laura's post from last week.


  1. I view most news reports these days with a heavy dose of skepticsim. It's amazing how media can twist words to make something out of nothing. Okay, it this case it's surprising considering the source. I tend to believe things that come from the AAP.

    I could only imagine FB's panic if this had hit the media. ;)

  2. I agree with Stina.. I'm very leery about I believe on the news.

  3. Very interesting and I can def believe it. I know many adults who get too wrapped up in social media and let it depress them if they don't feel included or important enough in an online capacity/situation, etc. It would make sense that teens, who are already facing those battles, would feel that way. Good to know (filing away for when my kids are teens).:)

  4. I know many adults who get too wrapped up in social media and let it depress them if they don't feel included or important enough in an online capacity/situation, etc. It would make sense that teens, who are already facing those battles, would feel that way.

    I stole what Jennifer said because it's exactly what I wanted to say.

    Social media is a very different way of life than from when I grew up. And I know it will be very different as my daughter grows up. She's already on the phone (landline although she wants a cell -- at 6! yeah, no. I don't even have one.)

    It's just a scary world we live in. I think too, if kids got off the FB and socialized more in person, there would be less angst out there. Or maybe I'm kidding myself. Life is not a 50's movie.

  5. Whoa. I've heard of Facebook addiction and how that's broken up marriages. I can see how Facebook depression could be the next thing. That's actually kind of scary. My daughter spends time on there and now I am concerned about how that could effect her real-live relationship. Eep!

    So much to think about! Worry, worry--that's what we parents get to do!


  6. I hadn't heard of it but I'm not surprised that it made the news. I'm glad you were able to tease out what it really means. There is so much hearsay with stuff like this--it can get so confusing.

  7. never heard of this... but i tend to think most psychological things don't have simple roots. people are so diverse, in thought process, history, genetics, etc. it's a large leap to say that facebook causes depression. or any ONE factor causes depression. i can see how social media would exacerbate (sp?) depression- but what do i know?
    i'm skeptical about nearly everything, naturally. but the news- crazy compromised. it actually disgusts me. i've been planning a post on misinformation, i'll have to linky back to here! :)

  8. Obssessing about social media? Me? Nah...;) I like your correlation vs causation arguement. I'm going with that one.

  9. Great discussion. What struck me most strongly from the teased-out truths was that teens who have "solid high quality friendships" aren't affected. This makes total sense to me. Social media (like the blogosphere, too) can provide a fabulous sense of community and support. But, as a man I knew who lived overseas emailed me years ago, when I answered no to his question of whether I spent a lot of time online, "Oh, of course. I forgot you have a real life." That was before Facebook and Twitter, but the basic thing holds true: if cyberfriendships are your mainstay, you are likely more vulnerable, as that man was, to depression.

  10. Excellent points, Sarah. I do believe people should dig when something makes them go, "Whoa! What the heck is THAT?" Hadn't heard about this, so I'm definitely checking out the report!

    I think parents should be very careful with what they read and hear. Next thing you know, teens will be monitored 24/7, and even though I think a lot of parents would love that, I'm not sure teens would :)

  11. I was really depressed at how much time I spent on FB, but then I reached lvl 230 on Mafia Wards and now I feel pretty great about myself.

  12. He he. Sneaky media. I did come across an article the other day that said teens go through withdrawls if technology is taken away that I thought was interesting. Don't know if there's any validity, but I'm pretty sure I'm addicted. :D

  13. As you probably know, I tend to distrust over diagnosis, and medicating psychological problems, so this doesn't surprise me, but I'm also jaded and biased, and this wasn't even a diagnosis anyway.

    It's an interesting idea. My teen does not have FB, not because we won't let her, her little sister has it, but my teenager doesn't want it. I'm willing to admit I'm proud of her. But she does spend too much time on other internet activities.

    I'd being more willing to believe in addiction to social media or other internet pursuits than I would be in it being a direct CAUSE of depression.

  14. No single piece of technology is inherently good or evil. I think that social media can actually help some introverted people get out of their shells in a healthy way.

    I had a friend at varsity who had gone to a boys school. For the first year of our friendship he almost never spoke to me in person. We had online discussions, but we didn't talk in class.

    It took me a while to realize why talking to him in person always got so awkward. He wasn't used to talking to girls.

    The online discussions bridged the gap, but it did take a while before things went from "talking to a girl" to "talking to my friend Christina".

  15. Not being active can trigger depression, so yeah, it would make sense that sitting at a computer for too long can affect anyone (not just teens)

  16. What's scary about Facebook is that people take it as "real" relationships, when it's really not. Easy to get caught up in it, tho, if you're not careful. I think teens are especially vulnerable to such things.

    WONDERFUL post!

  17. I heard about it awhile back. The real problem is cyberbullying and other things that take place on Facebook. I’ve read statuses that directly or indirectly call people out and bully people. It’s so much easier to bully someone from behind the safety of a computer screen than it is face-to-face.

    Besides bullying, there’s also the need to be popular. Unlike real life, your friend count is written in plain sight for everyone to see. It doesn’t matter how many of those people you actually talk to, it’s still kind of like a scoreboard of popularity. (Though a lot of people I know are actually starting to clean out their friends lists and removing people that they don’t talk to).

    I’m a real life example of an isolated teen reaching out online I believe that talking to people online can actually help teens become better socialized. For example, two years ago all I knew was the small, white, conservative town that I grew up in. Now because of the internet, I have friends around the world and from all cultures, religions, and walks of life. I have friends that are gay, transgender, lesbian, bi, and asexual. I have friends that are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and atheist. Because of all my online friends, I understand a lot more about other people than before and I tend to be more accepting than most other people that I know.

  18. Interesting article, Sarah. My daughter is 15 and isn't really interested in getting on facebook. She likes to read a few blogs. I asked her why she doesn't want to get on facebook. She said that people lived thousands of years without facebook, she's just fine without it. LOL!

  19. Balance, balance, balance. I think teens with social needs and few skills to get those needs met could definitely be susceptible to this phenomenon, the same way they are susceptible to World of Warcraft and other online activities which provide a social forum that is somewhat contrived. Nothing beats real interaction with people you can see and interact with, but for depressed kids, I can see the temptation.

  20. Yeah, I've read about this type of depression before. Indeed, social media has pros and cons too. Young Facebook users should be guided by adults, so as not to get a notion that their Facebook friends' lives are better than theirs, and that they're a hopeless case.

  21. I don’t really prefer calling it facebook depression because it is well observed that teens that are addicted to the internet are of high risk to depression. They don’t get to get out a lot and stay locked in their rooms surfing the net. It is just a coincidence that facebook has become famous and there are so many users.